Brands using humans (not humanizing brands)

Just read an interesting article from Digital Strategist Tom Liacas describing some of the pitfalls that brands find themselves in when they try to use social media as a marketing channel. He describes three de-humanized examples: the psychopath (using times of mass suffering and hardship as a sales opportunity); the robot (endlessly spouting one liners without listening to others or answering any questions); and the airhead (vacuous fan pages on social networks with nothing to say).

I really like the analysis. I’m not so sure, though about Tom’s conclusion: that brands need to “get human”. It might actually be that brands need to allow their people to express their humanity, and those aren’t the same thing at all.

First off, as I noted recently, I’m not convinced that many people want to have conversations with brands. Secondly, often connection through social media won’t come because of “marketing” activity, but is a broader question of customer/supplier communication (customer services, sales, operations and so on all want to talk to the customer), and marketers are kidding themselves if they think they’re the sole owners of communication with customers; and finally, more profoundly, might social networks start to push at the dehumanizing, Taylorist approaches we have seen in the past couple of decades that systemize and process-constrain the ways in which customers are forced to interact with brands?

My phone line went wrong a couple of days ago. After testing it last night with another handset, I phoned up BT on my mobile to report the fault. The system is now totally automated: the line test happens whilst you are on the line, and when a fault was found the automated system told me that I could request an engineer to investigate. Now I know a fair bit about how all of this stuff sits together, and had plugged a wired handset into main socket to ensure as much as I could that the fault is with BT not my equipment.

The automated system, warned me that, if a fault is found that isn’t with BT Openreach’s equipment (a legal distinction between BT who I actually have a contract with that again I have the knowledge to understand) then I would be subjected to a £100 charge. Even I, at that point, wanted some reassurance from A HUMAN BEING that I was doing the right thing in requesting an engineer to investigate. None was available.

It strikes me that social networks might be the channel in which all of this automated nonsense starts to break down. Whilst the interaction with BT might have been more efficient, it didn’t provide any extra value for me, and left me feeling that, despite their twitter handle of @BTCares, they actually don’t. If you abdicate your opportunities to interact with your customers to third parties or machines, but then think you can have conversations with them on Facebook, well, that’s the land of the Cloud cuckoo…

Compare that with someone like FirstDirect, with whom I do some of my banking. They differentiate their service from competitors by having people, called Dave or Alice or Bob or whoever, answer the phone. Usually within two rings. Who then use their technology to provide a service to their customers by talking things through with them, person to person. It’s not a perfect service, and I’ve had a few times when the service hasn’t met my expectations; but it’s a truly human service that they offer.

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